It’s been about ten years since James Bay first introduced himself to the world at large, with his guitar in hand and a signature hat adorning his long hair. In the time that’s passed, Bay has gone on to win BRIT-awards, Ivor Novellos, and has been nominated for not one, but three Grammy’s. He’s toured with Ed Sheeran, the Rolling Stones, and has just recently finished a stint of UK tour dates of his own. Today, his third collection of songs, Leap, joins his other two critically acclaimed albums. If anything, you’d think that James Bay has cracked the formula for success. And sure, when asked, Bay describes his current state of mind as “euphoric,” no pun intended. He’s a bit of a workaholic that way. “I’m just happy and excited to work and be doing things. As an artist, it’s always a bit of nothing or everything – you never know when inspiration hits. I’ve been making music for my third album for what feels like a million years now, so it’s nice to talk about it.”
But that’s exactly where it gets interesting. As it turns out, the road to Leap was anything but easy or euphoric. Rather, it was long, arduous, and bookended by major life-changing events. “I was feeling a version of anxiety, stress and insecurity that I hadn’t really felt in such a strong way before,” he confesses. “It was under the surface – on paper, 2019 was an amazing year. Full of fun touring and stuff, playing in stadiums with Ed Sheeran, releasing more new music after ElectricLight. But I was feeling lost, and struggling with this sort of imposter syndrome. I wasn’t sure how to move forward and what I was doing artistically. I felt like I was drowning.”
Granted, Electric Light was a bold artistic choice at the time. Cutting off his signature long hair, and foregoing the hat, Bay experimented with an edgier, glam-rock-light look at the time. It yielded single “Pink Lemonade,” which must’ve served as inspiration to Harry Styles, because it sounds eerily similar to his 2022 megahit “As It Was.” The quality of Bay’s record was indisputable, but it did give rise to questions on his artistic identity and authenticity, particularly in light of the massive success he’d had with his first record. Of course, having such an initial experience means that you set the bar that much higher when it comes to future successes. Perfectionism, innate melancholy, and being lauded early on in your career is a telltale recipe for imposter syndrome.
And while Bay was surrounded by peers both on tour and in the studio as he started writing for album number three, he did not talk about the insecurities that had started building up inside of him. “It’s not something that’s quickly talked about. I mean, I have a really great friend, Russell Howard, who in the UK is a really successful comedian. He knows all about these insecurities, and so we can get into it, and I cherish his friendship – but aside from him, no. That’s nothing on any of the artists, that’s just down to the fact that it’s kind of a taboo still,” he is quick to add. “I hate to say it, but even in 2022 – just to be a man talking about deeper feelings and insecurities is still not 150% completely accepted and welcomed. And that’s very sad.”
It’s one of the reasons why Bay feels even more strongly about the songs on his third record. “I’m finding a way to talk about these [songs] more honestly, because it gives me an opportunity to open up. There’s lots of people that I’m sure think I look kind of confident, and they’ll come up to me and say ‘oh you’re so relaxed, and cool and calm and collected about this career you have.’ And I’ll smile and nod, because very often, it’s not really the time and place to go into it, like I am now. And often it’s just not really understood or accepted that a human like me would open in that kind of way. So then, unfortunately, I don’t get into it. But I think to myself, in those moments, ‘you have no idea, I’ve got so much going on, like everybody else.’ Striking the right balance is the most important thing when it comes to talking about these issues, I think.”
Bay isn’t just referring to the art of finding the right moment, but also that you need to balance darker and lighter conversations. Sometimes, you’ll need a bit of light to dispel the darkness, and sometimes it’s by diving into the darkness that you’ll find the light. He was recently reminded of a quote by Nick Cave, stating that “when we’re happy, we write towards sadness as songwriters. When we’re sad, we tend to write towards happiness.” Bay explains, “When everything seems like it’s all good, we get deeper into our thoughts and feelings, and so we write towards– essentially– sadness. Emotionally, with this album, I was trying to write towards a light, or happiness, or some sort of hope. And that’s when these songs arrived, as I was trying to sort of defeat my natural melancholy. In my writing, it was so normal for me to start a sad song sad and write into that sadness. But I just couldn’t stomach that – I needed a light.”
However, his original starting point was quite the opposite. In fact, if it hadn’t been for COVID-19, we’d have been presented with a very different album. He’d written 12 songs in Nashville, of which only 6 now remain on the LP. “The truth is that I was struggling to understand what the next thing would be [after Electric Light]. I started to write, thinking I was getting a handle on it. I honestly had already accepted that it was just going to be sad music. Which, I wasn’t afraid to release that, because it was going to be honest. But then the pandemic hit and threw everything off its axis. One thing led to another, and even though we were all feeling our way through the dark, I made an album that I finished in March 2020. And then I couldn’t release it for the rest of the year,” he says with a wry smile. “And then I couldn’t release it for 2021 as well, because we couldn’t launch it in the way we can now. So, I wrote a bunch of other music, because it’s all I could do, you know? My thought was, I need to stay sane and stay inspired, but I can’t talk, can’t record– I’ll just have to write.”
And so Bay decided to write songs that recognize the special people who lift him up, and who’ve allowed him to take a chance in a volatile industry. People like his longtime partner Lucy, with whom he’s just become first-time parents. “This album– it’s about taking a leap of faith,” Bay says on the album title that ties the different songs together. He’d been dipping in and out of reading a book called The Artist’s Way, when he was drawn to one of the phrases written on the pages. “I found this quote by John Burroughs, who said– ‘leap and the net will appear.’ It just moved me, this idea of you just got to give it a shot.”
For Bay, the sentence triggered something akin to an epiphany. “I kept thinking, I’m about to land on or find out and understand the way I do things. I’m about to discover it and understand it, like – this is how I work. But of course that didn’t happen, because that’s not how it works. It doesn’t matter even if you’re Bruce Springsteen, who’s got a very signature sound. But it’s just not how it works– there’s not a blueprint. I finally started to accept that every day I get to do this job is as much of a gamble and an opportunity, a chance to take, as the last one,” he recalls. “It immediately made me think of my busking days in London, when I was playing open mic nights in 2010, 2011, 2012 even, and thinking it’s going to happen! If I just do another one, I’m gonna get the big break, whatever. Well, I’m still working for the big break. That’s what I found out in the last couple of years. I have to keep working for it, I’m still working for the big break, I’m still chasing it. The line made me understand that I’ve got to fight for it, every single day as if it’s the last one. There’s actually very little you can control, but the one thing you can do, is to get up and give the day you’ve been offered your best shot, just in case. I remember that every day now, and it helps me through the days that I find more difficult or that start badly, you know?”
He realizes that his music might be able to do the same for others when they listen to it, and trigger people into feeling something or taking action. In fact, it might even help get those long overdue conversations started (again) on mental health and vulnerability. Bay concurs, “it can be quite stark to just start the conversation out of the blue. And it’s funny, because often that’s the impulse for me. When it all gets too heated under the surface, I want to go ‘hey everybody, I’m really struggling, can we just talk about that immediately?’ Like, no context, just straight in. But, I appreciate that it’s difficult. And it’s why we have therapists, I suppose. Because you can just sit down and go. So to aid any struggle with music making is something I feel very fortunate to do. Music is its own therapy for listeners, and for creators. And I appreciate that it’s something I get to exist in and with at all times.”
One song that has really resonated with people is “Scars,” which took Bay almost two years to finish. It’s time artists hardly ever get to craft songs, once their debut album is out. There’s this invisible timer that pushes artists to seize the moment and write as soon as possible, then release and promote as soon as possible, then repeat. Very little room is left for reflection on questions such as “what do I want to do?,” and “was this what I actually wanted in the end?”
“It seems so unorganized to the naked ear,” Bay starts. “To music fans who don’t work in music but love new releases, they must think– what? You didn’t have it all under control? I don’t understand!” But yeah, you just have to write the best song you can and believe in it. The day you write it, the week after you write it, the month after you write it. Those three things on their own are hard to do. It’s a lot to stay invested in emotionally. I might believe in a song on the day I’ve written it, and a week later I might hate it, and a month later I might adore it again. But with ‘Scars,’ yeah, there was no deadline. It was a different time, like with anybody’s debut album that experience is different to all the times that will follow.”
One thing that’s never changed across Bay’s discography, is his love for the live element in his music. “To me, the recorded sound and live sound are one. I’m always trying to get them as close as possible to another as possible. For me it’s like a figure, one moving into the other, moving into the other.” He’s already excited about getting to play the entire album live to his fans. Having finished up a UK tour earlier this year, Bay has been able to get some feedback from the audience. “I’ve been holding a few back, but ‘Everybody Needs Someone’ has been translating really well live. We’ve been playing ‘Give Me A Reason’ towards the front of the set, but I think it’s soon going to be time to stretch that out a bit. I love messing with the dynamics of a song, we’ve also done that with ‘One Life’ already.”
“But, I think ‘Endless Summer Nights’ can be pretty powerful. I’m really looking forward to that. And ‘Better’ might be a great one where we strip it down to just electric guitar and vocal on my own. I can’t help it, from the moment that I’m writing a song to when I’m recording it in the studio, I’m always thinking about it live,” he grins.
What has changed, is the way in which he’s approached writing in general. The songs on Leap feel more confessional compared to the more abstract-leaning lyricism on his first albums. Bay has always seen songwriting as a craft, something that needs constant training. But his struggle with anxiety and imposter syndrome also impacted his artistry, heightening the need to “improve” somehow.
“I’m trying to sort of develop, evolve and better myself as a professional and as a person privately– as an artist, as a creator. It’s a craft, and I’m trying to get better,” Bay interrupts himself. ‘Well, better is a strange word to use– I’m trying to refine and distill the process to something more direct. And I know now more than ever that my first album in particular took a more abstract approach to lyrics, emotionally.”
That’s not to say he isn’t proud of it, because he is. It shows exactly the journey of development to where he is now. “I’d rather say that, than say I’ve gotten better, because that’s completely subjective. You know, vulnerability and honesty are both similar and different at the same time. And I’m trying to get closer to them all the time in my songwriting. It’s what I adore about my favorite songs and songwriters. All we’re ever trying to do is emulate our heroes, and maybe feel better about how we do the thing. Which is still going to be subjective.”
Those favorite songs he’s forever trying to write towards, are “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers, or “A Case of You” by Joni Mitchell– both on completely different ends of the spectrum. “’Lean on Me’ is so fucking direct and emotional. But then ‘A Case of You’ has the greatest fucking lyric of all time,” Bay muses. “‘I could drink a case of you and I would still be on my feet.’ Fuck. That’s just unbelievable songwriting, stunningly sort of abstract.”
While his hunger to hone his songwriting skills has impacted the delivery and lyricism, thematically he’s always had “heartfelt tendencies,” as he calls them. “On my second record, but even more so on my first album in a live setting, I was trying to come through with this tough act for the theater of it. When I watch everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Prince to Kings of Leon to Justin Bieber– they push their chest out, scowl a bit. It’s kind of a cool guy persona on stage or on the album cover. And historically, that kind of thing is exciting. Like, Elvis did the curling lip and all that. I’ve enjoyed embodying or adopting that theatrically, but as far as that being the true emotion in my music– that’s a different thing,” he admits. It’s perhaps another area in which emulating heroes has led Bay to discover what works and doesn’t work for him.
As a result, it’s the space in between each album– how he moves from one era to the next, that suddenly becomes interesting. “I’m interested to see how it develops for me as a writer, in the same that I’ve enjoyed listening to Bruce Springsteen. You know, “Blinded by the Light” is the single on his first ever album. And then “Born to Run” got a bit more direct. And then it kind of stayed around that world, until “I’m on Fire,” which is both abstract and direct as well. It’s just lovely to see that movement over time, and the development of that stuff in the evolution from album to album,” Bay adds.
It brings us back to the need for reflection, and time to actually craft a great album. However, “I can’t say I’ll put an album out in 2023, but I would love to,” he confesses with a grin. It’s not that big of a stretch, given the fact that he’s still got a lot of leftover material from the Nashville sessions in 2019. “I’d love to go back to all the songs that just didn’t quite make it. There’s so many songs that you write that go straight into the trash– that’s just the truth. Then there’s songs that you go on to release, but then there’s the in-between dudes, where you’re like, why didn’t they quite make it?”
Bay shrugs his shoulders, then. “I don’t know, because I’ll listen to the demos and I fucking love them. But they’re from an era of the past now. And the fresh ones are always the most exciting, because the ones that do go the distance– even though they were fresh in the moment, it’ll be weeks or months later that they’re actually released. So I don’t know if I’ll go back to the ones that didn’t make it. I’d love to, though. It’d be an album in itself– the ‘not quite’ collection.”
He also sees that the pandemic has changed the way in which we look at music consumption, and what artists have gone on to release. “I personally have had to wait so long to release these songs. There’s been tracks that I’d almost give the benefit of the doubt in a pandemic. Like, you get a chance to still get released, just to have something. I can think of four or five of the top of my head that’d absolutely make album four. Which means I’ve only got to write four or five more songs and that album would be ready to go. So we’ll see.”
Besides, Bay has found a whole new source of inspiration in his newborn daughter. “It’s funny, you know? Parenthood, first time parents is very overwhelming in a wonderful, incredible way. So, to sort of sum it up in a cute little chorus is not the easiest thing,” he starts. “I’m just doing a lot of digesting and taking each day as it comes. I’m still riding this crazy wave of emotions about having brought a human into the world that we are now entirely responsible for. It’s going to affect the way I write, what I say, and I’m fine with that. But it’s not like me to just write a sweet happy song about ‘I had a baby.’ It’s just not who I am as an artist or music fan.”
In a way, it makes Leap all the more intriguing to listen to, because the album is essentially a wonderful time capsule. The tracks mark Bay’s journey towards hope and optimism, but they also capture his journey towards accepting his own darker emotions – sadness, stress, grief, and anxiety. For example, in “Better,” Bay sings “I’m still not sure who I am supposed to be,” and that is okay. Because if we’re being honest, who does know exactly who they’re supposed to be? At any given age, really?
If anything, Leap is Bay’s true coming-of-age as an artist. Someone who has really grown into himself, who trusts his instincts and talents enough to be vulnerable. In doing so, Bay has elevated the indie-rock sound with which he first burst onto the scene to something even more powerful. And in an increasingly hardening world, it’s all the more important to have moments of softness wrapped in breezy guitars. “Leap is meant for those moments when you’re struggling and you’re not sure how or if you’re gonna go on. I hope that people understand that for however hard one day is, there’s always another one coming tomorrow. Sometimes it can be difficult to see that when things are so heavy and hard in this world, particular these times. I’ve just tried to make music that speaks to that kind of message– to not give up.”